by William J. Stewart
In the religious world, there is a basic cognizance of the need to conduct ourselves within the confines of God’s authority. The apostle Paul, when writing to the brethren at Colosse implored, “…whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Colossians 3:17). Such demands that we search the Scriptures, to know what is and what is not acceptable to the Lord so far as religious practice and doctrine.
When we come to the subject of proper worship in song, just as with any other topic, we must seek to know what pleases the Lord. A practice or teaching may delight us, but we are not the object nor the designer of worship. How does God instruct us to worship in song? Are we to use mechanical instruments, are we to use our voices, or a combination of the two?
Our primary focus in this article, as evidenced by the title, will be the occurrence and use of instrumental music as found in the book of Revelation. A detailed discussion of the use of instrumental music in the Old Testament, and the pattern of vocal music in the New Testament will be reserved for another occasion. However, permit just a few comments on these important aspects of music in the Scriptures.
That instrumental music was used in worship in Old Testament times is sure. There are numerous texts which speak of instruments being employed in the praise of God, of which Numbers 10:10 and 2 Chronicles 5:11-14 are examples. However, the use of such by those who were then subject to Moses’ law does not condone the use of the same today by those who are under Christ’s law. God’s acceptance of a practice under the former covenant does not ensure His acceptance of the same under the New covenant. We must learn what God has commanded in the New Testament so far as worship in song.
Very briefly, the consistent testimony of the New Testament is that Christians should worship God with singing (Acts 16:25; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; James 5:13). Not once do we find in the epistles an example of or instruction to use instrumental music in worship. If we are going to do and say according to name of the Lord (ie. by His authority), then we will worship God with the use of our voices, and not mechanical instruments. To go beyond this is to act without authority.
Some might be inclined to contend, there are musical instruments mentioned in the book of Revelation, employed in worship of God Almighty. Indeed, that is the case. In fact, there are three occasions in the book of Revelation where instruments of music are mentioned in conjunction with worship. Let us use the remainder of our time considering these texts.
Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth.
Beginning in chapter 4, John presents to us a heavenly scene, as he was granted to see the throne room of God. When we consider the text, it must be with the understanding that the events depicted are not upon the earth, but in heaven. As such, the worship which is described in the text does not serve as a example of the worship to be engaged in by the New Testament church.
If this were Biblical instruction for worship in the Lord’s church, then it would be necessary for ALL worshippers to have and play an instrument. And not just any instrument, but the text specifies that ALL twenty-four elders and ALL four living creatures had a harp. But of course, the text is not to be understood literally, for even in verse 8 itself, John identifies the figurative manner of his words. The “golden bowls full of incense” were not in fact vessels of gold containing fragrance, but were emblematic of “the prayers of the saints”. This text does not teach us regarding the appropriate practice for worship by God’s people upon the earth.
And I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of loud thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps. They sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth.
Again, the text makes it evident that these are scenes and descriptions of the heavenly realm, not the worship practices of the Lord’s church. The absurdity of a literal application of the text to New Testament worship is quickly seen. Verse 3 speaks of a new song being sung (not in a local assembly of Christians, but “…before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders…”). This song was exclusive; only the 144,000 were able to learn it. Is there a song upon the earth which none other than Christians can learn? No, but in the heavenly realm, this song is found, and likewise in the heavenly realm (not in the assembly of God’s people) these harpists play their harps.
And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who have the victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, having harps of God. They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying: ‘Great and marvelous are Your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints!’
Once again, we are privy to “…another sign in heaven…” (v 1) which was revealed to John. And, once more, the efforts of any who seek to use the appearance of musical instruments in the book of Revelation as justification for such in worship today, are confounded.
The description given is not like any meeting place I have been to. These harpists who were singing stood upon “…something like a sea of glass mingled with fire…” But remember, this is an image which John saw in heaven, not upon the earth. And, the harpists are those who “…have victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark, and over the number of his name…” (v 2), not those who still “…endure temptation…” (James 1:12), and “…wrestle… against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12).
Do musical instruments appear in the book of Revelation? Absolutely. Do these instruments appear in the context of worship? Absolutely. Is this justification or authority for the use of instrumental music in worship today, in the assembly of God’s people? No. Each instance identifies heaven as its setting, and incorporates figures in John’s vision. As the incense vessels (5:8), the exclusive song (14:3), and the glassy sea (15:2) are signified images, it is equally plausible that the harpists and their harps are figures and not literal.
If one desires to know how we should praise God in song, such will be accomplished, not by turning to the book of Revelation, or to the Old Testament, but to the epistles of the New Testament, wherein we are given examples and commands with regard to musical worship. Consistently, the testimony of the New Testament epistles is that we should sing; no mention is made of the use of instruments of music. Such as the case, if our desire is to follow the word of God, we also will not use instrumental music in worship.